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ANY QUESTIONS
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Journey of a Lifetime
Transcript: Any Questions?  6 June 2008


PRESENTER: Eddie Mair


PANELLISTS: John Denham MP
David Willetts MP
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown
Doctor Anthony Seldon

FROM: Springfield School, Portsmouth


MAIR
Hello and welcome to Any Questions from Springfield School in Portsmouth – a popular comprehensive with more than eleven hundred pupils. Quite a few of them have been making us very welcome already. This week on the programme using all the skill at her disposal and innovation, we have on our panel, not just the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills but the Shadow Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills. John Denham is the man doing the big job. David Willetts is the man who wants it. Which of them do you think was it who said Labour had lost touch with voters in the south of England. Mr Denham, whose own constituency is Southampton ... He’s expressed a fear that voters are confused about what Labour stands for. His own return to the front benches follows his resignation from Tony Blair’s government over the Iraq War. Until Carla Bruni revealed this week that President Sarkosy has five or even six brains .. David Willetts had the most brains in politics with a total of two. He earned the nickname through his fondness for policy debate and statistical research and his success in being British all comers pub quiz champion three years running. I made that last bit up. Something that may be of special in this week when young teenagers and knife crime have been in the news again is Mr Willetts’s view that parks, playgrounds and street should be made safer for children. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown writes for the Evening Standard in London and for the Independent. The outgoing editor of that paper has conceded that their front pages can sometimes be boring. The same can’t be said for Yasmin Alibhai-Brown’s award winning columns. There was no messing about recently when she wrote that banging up suspect terrorists for forty two days in detention without charge is exactly that kind of big boy gesture that reveals wobbly conviction and shaky commitment to those principles that make this nation a free and great democracy. Doctor Anthony Seldon is Master of Wellington College who recently ... that all schools should become independent. Doctor Seldon is a celebrated political biographer. He’s written about Margaret Thatcher, John Major and Tony Blair. Will there be a Gordon Brown book? He recently wrote that Mr Brown – shaking his head. He recently wrote that Mr Brown had a golden period until two thousand and one when he went into sulk mode. Doctor Seldon suggested helpfully that if Gordon Brown had gone to Wellington he’d be a far better prime minister. That’s our panel. [CLAPPING] And here’s our first question.

ROBERTSON
Pauline Robertson. Does the panel feel it was justified to allow Robert Mugabe to attend the meeting held recently in Rome? And what should the response of the international community be to increasing repression in Zimbabwe?

MAIR
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown.

ALIBHAI-BROWN
I don’t think legally in terms of international law he could have been stopped. I think it is a shame and scandal that his neighbouring countries and the leaders thereof find it so easy to be in his company. He is – I grew up in Uganda. I was there when Idi Amin was there and when you are in a country which is ruled by a tyrant of that sort actually the worst thing is that the people actually lose the will even to oppose it. But there are two things I want to say which may be controversial, but then what’s new? One is that I do think it’s not helping that the Anglo Saxon axis if you like shows such excessive concern and ... for African natures which have white settlers and not nearly enough for countries like my country, Uganda, which is also going down the tube. It’s the kith and kin thing which I understand. And on the African side it’s the kith and kin thing that is stopping them doing something about it. So if we stop thinking about kith and kin and got more clear headed, maybe really to lay the, the moral line down, cos that’s all we can do - we can’t send the bombs in this time - to the south, southern African nations. It is their responsibility. Mbeki has been a complete miserable failure. [CLAPPING]

MAIR
Anthony Seldon.

SELDON
Well I have no doubt at all that Robert Mugabe is a very, very bad thing for his country. And I’ve had quite a few boys from his country at my last school Brighton College. And I can see the damage that he’s done to his country. But bad, very, very bad though, though he is, I don’t think the way to deal with him is to shut him off from the international community. I think the way to deal with people who are very misguided, who are damaging their own countries is to have as much contact as possible, not as little. So let’s invite him everywhere and let, let’s open it up to, to, him to everywhere so people can actually see and converse with him and maybe persuade him. Because after all sanctions and closing him down hasn’t had much affect so far has it? [CLAPPING]

MAIR
David Willetts

WILLETTS
I think it’s a, a great pity that he was allowed to come to that international conference. I fully understand that under international law, as it was a United Nations conference there was no means of stopping him. But particularly coming to speak at an international conference on food when his own people were starving seemed completely obscene. As to what we can do it is very frustrating because it’s appalling what’s happening in Zimbabwe but we can’t directly influence events. It clearly is above all for the neighbouring countries. I thought one of the most optimistic developments of the last few months was when local workers in the different African states refused to unload arms coming for Zimbabwe to strengthen his regime. I thought that was exactly the sort of direct popular opposition that he needs to confront. I think we should put more pressure on President Mbeki. I agree with Yasmin. It’s a great disappointment what the South Africans have done. And we shouldn’t be afraid of speaking up ourselves as well. We have the right to be heard on this subject as much as any other country. We don’t need to be embarrassed. And I think we should make it clear how much we abhor what is happening in Zimbabwe now.

MAIR
Would there be anything wrong with a policy of greater engagement with Robert Mugabe?

WILLETTS
Well I’m afraid I think that Anthony is optimistic in believing that if you invited him to more conferences and he met more international politicians you would change his approach. The danger, he’d just turn up, hole up in some luxury hotel in a foreign capital, send out his aids to raid all the shops and bring more goodies back for his cronies and then head off back home. I don’t think sadly that more contact would change him. I think what’s important is the opp – I much prefer the opposite approach. I think the empty chair approach saying that he is not acceptable as a member of the international community is the right way to handle Mugabe.

MAIR
Has that worked?

WILLETTS
Well I think that he, the fact that he does take the rare opportunities that he does have to go to international events, the fact that he himself made such a big deal of coming to that UN Conference on food suggests that for him he liked the status and the attention of coming along and participating in the international gathering. So that tells me he does value it and it tells me we should do everything possible to stop his coming to such events. [CLAPPING]

MAIR
John Denham.

DENHAM
I think there’s one thing that we should do and we should concentrate solely on that one thing, and that is enabling the people of Zimbabwe to complete the process that they have already started by being able to determine their own future and vote for the government and the leadership they want in their country. They’ve started that. [CLAPPING] We are in a position clearly where the deaths, the assaults, the intimidation, the banning today of aid agency work is being used to prevent that happening. And that is what we and the rest of the international community must get behind, and in particular why the focus has got to be so strongly now on the conduct of the election, of getting international observers in and enabling the people of Zimbabwe to choose.

ALIBHAI-BROWN
I ...

DENHAM
And in that, in that, in that process there’s one thing we have to be careful to avoid. We just need to understand it about the politics. David is absolutely right we have every right to express our views. Mugabe though has been extraordinarily able to exploit symbolic gestures as saying it’s just the old colonialists up to their old tricks at all. They’re not interested in democracy. They’re not interested in anything else. They just want to come back and run the place. And that’s why it’s easy to think of symbolic things you might do. No, let’s just concentrate on the elections. Let’s make every possible effort to make sure they are as free as they can be because I trust the people of Zimbabwe to make the right choice for them.

ALIBHAI-BROWN
But you see they do lose the will, when they are that oppressed. What changed Uganda was Tanzania, with our help behind the scenes actually coming and doing the business. That’s what needs to happen.

DENHAM
But, but Yasmin, just, let’s not forget that not very long ago it is very – at the very least and even on the figures produced by the Mugabe government, more people voted for change than voted for him. I don’t believe, despite everything that’s happened that will and that desire has changed. And we’ve got to protect their right to exercise it.

MAIR
Right thank you for .. [CLAPPING] Thank you for all of that. The telephone number if you’d like to call Any Answers after the Saturday Edition of Any Questions is 08700 100444. 08700 100444. The email address is any.answers@bbc.co.uk. Let’s have our next question please.

CAMPBELL
Ian Campbell. Should six figure bonuses be paid to Network Rail executives despite engineering works regularly over-running and disrupting the rail users?

MAIR
John Denham.

DENHAM
I’ve got a horrible feeling that this is the sort of thing that you should know what some other member of the Cabinet has already said about this issue. But let me tell you, let me tell you what my instinctive feeling is. I think there’s two things. One is actually compared with where we were a few years ago with the complete mess of rail privatisation Network Rail has, whatever we say about it, done a really good job in turning things round. And things have become much more strategic. Reinvestment has been much better placed and there have been real improvements in the railway. Whether people should get performance bonuses of that scale when there have clearly been very significant problems, I think raises an issue which comes up too often with performance bonuses. There’s no point in having a performance regime unless it is written very tightly and very carefully so that you can’t do half your job and get a huge load of money if the other half of your job hasn’t been done properly. And I think that what comes out of this is perhaps a lesson to say – and I think this applies right across all of those occupations with performance regimes – they’ve got to be written not just for a few targets that might be relatively easy to achieve but with an eye on the things that can go wrong as well.

MAIR
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown.

[CLAPPING]

ALIBHAI-BROWN
So there’s a new trick in town. You, you get a job you have to do, you do it so badly that it hits rock bottom and then you do it a little bit better the following year so you get a bonus. It’s a fantastic thing. [CLAPPING] Sorry. Wouldn’t we all love a job like that hey? That’s what I think. It’s wrong.

MAIR
Anthony Seldon.

SELDON
Well I mean it’s rubbish isn’t it? I mean come on, isn’t it rubbish?

AUDIENCE
Yes.

SELDON
Good. I mean you know I mean head teachers could screw things up and get zero per cent through GCSE and A level and six figure bonuses – I don’t know how much Mrs Evans gets here. They might have a six figure salary for most teachers. What, what concerns me I think is for public workers, why is so much money going into rail bosses? I don’t know actually what the skills are. What is the skill of a rail boss? What does a rail boss, boss around? I know what – you know is it like a not thin controller. And because, because he would get an awful lot of money now. I mean I, I’m just concerned about you know teachers and forget teacher bosses, just ordinary teachers. I think that teachers should have a whole lot more money. [CLAPPING] There is, there is no more, no more important profession anywhere in the world. It’s nothing to do with the question but it’s a really good point.

MAIR
Has it anything to do with our venue?

SELDON
It has absolutely everything to do with the venue. But I tell you what, I’d say the same thing in front of lots of rail workers and even particularly lots of rail bosses.

MAIR
David Willetts.

[CLAPPING]

WILLETTS
Well I think Anthony did a brilliant job of appealing to his audience. And I quite understand what he’s saying. There is a bit of history for us here of course because I think a lot of us are very surprised about these bonuses because they have been supposedly improving the Portsmouth to London line. And that has been a complete disaster. The works overran. It took them much longer. They had, the lines kept on being closed for extended weekends. And so if boss, if the bosses of Network Rail are to be, their performance is to be assessed by how well the investment is being delivered in the London to Portsmouth line then they certainly do not deserve their bonuses. [CLAPPING]

MAIR
But is this something David Willetts that government can do anything about? It is Network Rail after all.

WILLETTS
Well I mean that’s ... put on a – that’s a very interesting point Eddie because of course it used to be a private company. But this company nationalised it. It is now under public control. So we can’t say as you can legitimately in the commercial sector, look they’re under commercial pressures, they’ve got shareholders who will hold them to account. They’re not under normal commercial pressures. So I do think that ministers must have some responsibility for setting the framework so that if there are to be performance bonuses there genuinely have to be improvements in performance which we certainly have not seen round here.

MAIR
John Denham, care to make a policy initiative and announcement?

DENHAM
Probably not, no. The truth is that yes it was a very good thing David that it was brought back effectively into public ownership after the total shambles that was created by dividing the railway up and privatising it. But I .. [CLAPPING] You had to do that job. But actually I’m not actually sure about the detail but I would be fairly certain that Network Rail like many similar organisations is actually run at total, much further than arm’s length from ministers’ day to day control. By and large it’s not a good idea for ministers to think they should be running the detail of organisations of this sort. Now maybe the issues like this raise questions about the policy framework that’s set for these organisations. Those may be fair questions to raise with ministers. But I don’t think any of us think that Network Rail would be run better if it were run by ministers.

MAIR
All right.

DENHAM
And I’m a minister.

MAIR
The Any Answers number once again is ..

DENHAM
I think that ...

MAIR
The Any Answers number once again is 08700 100 444. Let’s have our next question.

HALLSWORTH
Marion Hallsworth. Imperial College is the latest Russell Group university to introduce its own university entrance exams. Does this mean that A levels are of little worth as measure of excellence?

MAIR
Anthony Seldon.

SELDON
Well can I begin by saying that I think it was singularly inept of the Head of Imperial College in the week that people are beginning A levels, and there are lots of children from this school are beginning GCSEs to undermine them. And for a leader of education in such a powerful institution as Imperial College, world renowned, to say that A levels and these exams are, are worthless, I think is really disgraceful actually because .. [CLAPPING] What I see is lots of children working extremely hard for their GCSEs and for their A levels and they, I think are very good exams. There are new variants coming out on A levels. There’s the international baccalaureate which my own school is taking. But I think A levels are a very good exam and I think we should certainly not be undermining the children at this particular time. Now if Imperial want to have their own particular extra tests well that’s fine and that’s a very good thing. They’re looking for particular skills and sciences and medicine – great, let them do that. But let’s not undermine A levels. Let’s not undermine the teaching profession at above all not at this very sensitive time from somebody in such a responsible position please.

MAIR
John Denham.

DENHAM
I think, I think Anthony’s right about A levels and I think it’s time that the knocking of A levels stopped. This debate goes on all the time. It’s one of the reasons why Ed Balls has actually decided to make the regulator which is now going to be called OFQUAL entirely and utterly and totally dependent of any, independent of any government involvement whatsoever. So that actually there is a completely independent body verifying the quality of these examinations that so many young people, including as it happens my own son, are working to do at the moment. Now there are some issues, one of them which you do hear and David will have heard this week around universities is about the preparation for mathematics at universities. And that’s why the last three or four years we’ve had a huge pressure across colleges to promote further maths. And we’ve had really sharp increases in the number of students who are doing not just maths A level but further maths A level and they’re doing that because there’s some subjects – not all by any means – but some subjects, if you want to do them at university, you want that deeper and further knowledge if you’re going to do a heavily mathematics based degree. So we do need to respond to that. We do need to make sure that all our pupils are prepared properly and that’s what we’re doing. But just the knocking of A levels I think is really wrong and very unfair on young people working so hard to get them.

MAIR
But can we assume that Imperial College wouldn’t have said this if they didn’t feel there was a serious problem? They’re not just knocking A levels for the fun of it.

DENHAM
They’re not, I’m sure, knocking it for the fun of it but I think it’s also worth recognising that anybody who’s looked at the system genuinely and independently does not share the view that A levels have been devalued. And that was the message that came out here. I’ve acknowledged as the government’s done for a number of years now that there are certain degrees that if you want to do them you need to have a much big, better grounding in maths than you get just from a maths A level. So we’re promoting maths A levels. It’s up to Imperial if they want to have another test. But let me just put this one reservation which is always going to be there. Nobody has yet devised a test that you can’t be taught to pass. And the fear, the fear would be that some students from some schools, perhaps because they’re selected schools, perhaps for other reasons, will be better prepared by their schools to sit these tests. Now Imperial is one of our great universities. It’s a world renowned science college. And we want to make sure that that college must be avail.., open to students of real ability wherever they come from and whichever school they went to. [CLAPPING]

MAIR
David Willetts.

WILLETTS
Well I, I completely support the importance of keeping A levels which are an exam that employers, universities, parents, students all value and recognise. The, I think there is a, what is frustrating for Imperial and for some universities is that they, he is saying, Richard Sykes, the Head of Imperial – I hope he’s not knocking A levels. And if he was knocking A levels he was wrong. But if he has to make a decision as to who are the students who can best benefit from going to Imperial which is a world class university, he may now have so many students all presenting themselves with excellent A levels, he needs some further information in order to distinguish between them.

MAIR
Well they all get A’s apparently. That’s the problem.

WILLETTS
Well exactly. And historically – let’s just remember where A levels came from. Historically those old exam boards were created by universities in order for universities to try to work out which were the students who are going to gain best from going to that university. So if he needs to do something on top because the A levels themselves aren’t providing enough information then he has to be free to do that. Now in terms of what students are doing, I quite agree, especially at this time of year, students are doing a fantastic job. They’re working hard. But I do have a worry. And my worry is not so much the rigour of the exams or the hard work of the students but it’s whether students are always getting the best advice about which A levels they should be doing. And there are lots of – when you go to these summer schools that now run these fantastic programmes that encourage teenagers to think about going to university, a message that comes across to me time and again is the youngsters turn up and they’re exciting by doing engineering or something. And then they realise if they want to do engineering at university they really do need to have maths as one of their A levels. But no one has explained to them that if that’s what your career ambitions are that these are the kind of A levels you need to do. And the, what is the cruel trick is if, if students aren’t getting the honest advice about the A levels that universities really value and the A levels that will best enable to fulfil their ambitions – and I hope and believe that at this school that kind of objective, frank advice is available for students as they’re choosing what they do for GCSEs and going on beyond. But there are, there are students who are not getting that advice now and we’re letting them down by not telling them the A levels they really need to study to fulfil their ambitions and that’s where we need reform. [CLAPPING]

ALIBHAI-BROWN
My daughter’s big, big dream is to go to Imperial College because she actually loves science and is very good at it. She read this thing in the paper and said first thing “Oh no, I won’t be able to go now”. So it was quite interesting that just the reporting of some, a new kind of barrier for a fifteen, coming onto sixteen year old was already – I have a great number of worries about institutions setting up their own admissions policies and tests because this is what happens and has been happening an awful lot, well forever, at Oxbridge. And yet what happens in these colleges, not because people have malign intent, but a kind of culture develops. And people in the know just as John said can either mug up or be schooled for it or tutored for it – usually moneyed people, middle class people. And I would be very, very unhappy if Imperial you know which is in London which has welcomed international and national students of all backgrounds, suddenly became its own kind of guardian of who could come in and who couldn’t. And didn’t buy in to what is a very important national recognition of excellence. I feel very sorry for young people. We’re very, we’re incredibly intolerant and unkind to young people at this, around this time. And I agree with Anthony on this. They work damned hard. And if many of them are getting As could it just be that they deserve them? [CLAPPING]

MAIR
Anthony Seldon.

SELDON
Well very briefly I’m just going to refer to a wider problem which is that universities rarely now interview candidates. That’s a great pity. And what happens is that by just putting so much emphasis on the A level results it distorts the whole of education because it puts unnecessary pressure on children to do extremely well in these tests. And it, it militates against them educating themselves more broadly. You know we, every single child at school doesn’t have just their intellectual intelligence, they have seven or eight different intelligences. And all of them, if you want a really good education system in Britain and who doesn’t? Our schools should be educating all those different intelligences. And because universities are only validating A levels it means that schools necessarily put far too much of their attention on just academic subjects. And the children sense well I can’t learn an instrument and I can’t play sport and I can’t do dancing because it’s going to take time away from my studies. How sad. [CLAPPING]

MAIR
John Denham, to pick up on part of that point from Doctor Seldon, how can universities get a more rounded view of who the people are who might be coming through the doors?

SELDON
I think one of the things that we need to do is to enable universities and schools to work more closely together. I think that actually we’ve had too much focus for a long time now on simply the admissions process itself. And one of the reasons that the government’s been so keen to encourage universities to get involved in schools through academies and through trusts and there’s about seventy of them doing that with many different schools, is that actually there are too many students in schools who have too little exposure to university and what it’s all about, particularly if they don’t come from a university background. There are some universities that don’t know enough about what is actually going on within schools. I think that if those relationships get stronger then it will be much easier both for universities to have a better sense of the range and talent, of talent and ability that’s out there and how to identify it and what to look for over and above the simple exam results. And it will enable the schools – picking up a very important point that David made just earlier – actually to give students the right guidance towards the right sort of choices for themselves. And I think these deeper links between schools, recognising that for many students the key choices they make are at twelve, thirteen or fourteen. They’re not at seventeen. It’s that age when they decide what they’re going to aspire for and work towards. I think that’s critical. And I think that will actually help universities to have a better understanding that A levels are critically important in the current system but there’s more to a student than the A level results they get.

WILLETTS
I agree with you John about the importance of universities reaching out and building their links with schools. And there are still schools where not enough people are aware of the opportunity of going to university and how to set about it. So of course the universities have to do everything they can to reach out. But in return we have to accept that unless we’re going to have universities that are, that are, that lose all the things that made them often renowned and respected across the world, we then have to allow the universities ultimately the decision about who can best gain from going to these universities. And Imperial is a world class university. And they have to, they will not be world class if we all try to second guess the decisions they take. They have to reach out but then they have, we have to trust them to reach the right decisions about who can best gain from going to Imperial.

MAIR
I just wonder what our questioner thinks. What do you think of what you heard?

HALLSWORTH
I think there’s some interesting ideas. But I think that the, what they’ve done at Imperial is detrimental to widening participation in higher education. I feel that if they want to distinguish – and I appreciate there is a problem if you’ve got candidates all sitting there with four As – they have already the means to do that. They can interview candidates. Perhaps if higher education was better staffed with better staffing to student ratios there might be more, more staff available to conduct the interviews which used to be an integral part of the admissions process. But with the cuts in higher education, the staffing levels have dropped and I fear that students are not getting the attention right from the admissions section that they need.

MAIR
Thank you for that. [CLAPPING] Very briefly John Denham.

DENHAM
Let me just say briefly actually real public spending has gone up by thirty per cent on universities. It is true. And let me tell you something else. There are more academic staff and more other staff too. Now nobody’s ever going to say there’s enough. But it simply isn’t true to say there have been cuts in our education.

MAIR
All right. Well we could talk about that for some time I’m sure. But [CLAPPING] .. if you’d like the opportunity to debate that point or anything else on education the phone number for Any Answers is 08700 100444 or you can email any.answers@bbc.co.uk. Now our next question please.

HOTCHKISS
Alan Hotchkiss. Would Britain’s interest be best served by the election of President Obama or President McCain?

MAIR
David Willetts.

WILLETTS
Well I mean it’s such a, firstly, such a big thing. I don’t, don’t think we should simply look at it through the perception of, of our national interest. And I, I believe ..

MAIR
That is the question.

WILLETTS
Yeah. But I, actually I was in America earlier this week and it was an incredibly sort of exciting mood there. And I, so I, they are focusing on, I think they’re very fortunate in that they’ve ended up with the two best candidates they could have. Senator McCain is a free thinker who is, would not simply be a continuation of the type of government that they’ve had under President Bush shall we say. And Obama is an incredibly exciting guy. It’s, the reason why it’s hard to answer your question is that we don’t know much yet about Senator Obama. I’ve just got his autobiography. In fact I think it’s so far, by the age of, just over forty, produced two volumes of autobiography which is good going. I’ve just got it and I’m reading it. I think he would be a guy who would transform the world’s perceptions of America. I mean America is a fantastic place. It has all this openness and opportunity. But it has in the last few years I think – the tragedy is after nine eleven when there was such a surge of goodwill towards America, the way that has been frittered away over the past few years has been a tragedy. And it’s made the world a more dangerous and unstable place. And I think that Obama would by restoring the world’s faith in America would probably, that would be good for Britain that wants international order. Senator McCain – experienced, robust. A guy who knows how the world works so we’d have someone of experience there. But I think probably out of the two the more direct and vivid change would come from Obama. [CLAPPING]

MAIR
Anthony Seldon.

SELDON
... be surely no doubt about it. It have to be Barack Obama doesn’t it? I mean John McCain, repetition of yet more Bush years despite everything that he’s said. I mean why Obama? Because he’s youthful. Because he’s energetic. Cos he’s black. Cos he’s optimistic. Because I love America and I so pained when I travel the world to see the animosity towards this country which should be a great beacon of civilised values in the world. So he’s got some of the charisma, a lot of the charisma of Kennedy, a lot of the idealism, optimism. I mean goodness gracious, how can you possibly waver on that David? I’m shocked.

WILLETTS
I think you should remember that McCain himself, I think where you’re being unfair on McCain is that he is, on many issues, from campaign finance reform to criticising the irresponsible management of the finances in America. He has been in many ways the most vociferous critic within the Republican Party, some of the decisions that Bush has taken.

SELDON
But David ...

WILLETTS
So we’re going to have, we’re going to have I think a great presidential debate between two very interesting candidates. And the fact that this is happening when I was where was one was reminded, for those of us at a certain age, this is about, I think this week is the fortieth anniversary of the assassination of Robert Kennedy which some of us remember from our childhood. And I think there was a real sense in America this, this week with Obama becoming the candidate that they were once more renewing themselves which is one of the great capacities they have in America.

SELDON
Well I – good David. You’re a politician and you’re saying that McCain’s ..

WILLETTS
And you’re a teacher.

SELDON
Well I’m a teacher. Thank you. And very proud of it too. I’m not a rail boss. I’m proud of that also. [CLAPPING] But David you’re not seriously surprised are you that, that McCain is distancing himself from Bush? I mean you’re saying that this is sort of a wonderful thing, he’s not Bush, he’s different from ... I mean what do you expect for goodness sake?

WILLETTS
But he’s not – the point is this is not, this is not something he is doing now. You look at the guy’s record over the past decade or more he is clearly not someone who has just been a follower of the Bush line. So he’s not a piece of political calculation this week. It’s authentic. It rests on how he’s voted and what he’s said over the years, working on a cross party basis for legislation in congress.

MAIR
Ah well that’s ..

WILLETTS
It’s real.

MAIR
That’s two for Obama so far. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown?

ALIBHAI-BROWN
I have an Obama t-shirt with his, with his face on my chest.

MAIR
Let’s just pause for a moment.

ALIBHAI-BROWN
... elated. And this is the first time ever I think since I’ve known David that I agree with him. I have, David and I, David and I have had many spats over many decades about the United States and our relation... relationship with the country. I don’t think McCain is the, the liberal, rebellious side of the Republican Party. He is a complete hawk when it comes to war and wanting more wars and his attitude and opinions on Iraq are really quite scary. But what is I think if let, I really pray nothing happens to Obama because this is the great hope, not just for him but for the whole, like the other two speakers said, the image of America but all our futures. Because the last thing we needed was somebody like Hilary Clinton who wanted to go and nuke Iran in one of her many ridiculous speeches that she was making day in, day out. So I think what, it is an optimistic time but we should be very careful. What I’m dreading is the three months after he takes office I will hate Obama because he’ll be as bad as the rest of them. So I, I hope that disillusionment doesn’t come. But this is a man who knows Afric... He’s part African. He’s lived in the Far East. It’s not just that he knows about abroad, he’s part of abroad which George Bush never understood in one cell of his body. So let’s hope. Great. [CLAPPING]

MAIR
John Denham, if word was to reach the United States that all four members of the Any Questions panel backed Barack Obama who knows what would happen.

DENHAM
Who knows. Who knows. And it wouldn’t matter on this one which government minister you had sitting here, they would all say quite rightly, as governments must, that the USA is our most important ally and we will want to have the best possible relations with whoever wins in that election. I as a politician here I do cast a slightly envious eye across the Atlantic over the last few months. I work in a political culture, so does David actually, where if you say something, a scintilla of difference from what your Party Leader says or other people in your Party it’s suddenly, it’s a gaff, it’s a split, it’s a mess. Here you’ve had just one of the great political parties in America having an enormous debate “What sort of country do we want to be? What sort of people are we going to be? What’s our relationship with the rest of the world going to be?” And yet we all know that it’s quite some, you know sometimes ... in Kansas, that particular party will unite and fight the election in the Autumn and people will see them as one party. And I sometimes wish that we had the scope to have that culture in this country. [CLAPPING]

MAIR
Does it make you wish that Gordon Brown had been challenged? Does it make you wish that Gordon Brown had faced a challenge?

DENHAM
No I don’t. I think it’s more about the, I think it’s more about the, the way in which we’re able to debate in public and how quickly you’re on the Today Programme being accused of being disloyal or having a split if you just have some, air some ideas in public. I, can I just say – this is slightly naughty I know. But I’m struggling with David’s idea that the way that you know that somebody is really telling the truth is that they’ve been absolutely consistent throughout their lives. Because his party is led by somebody who wants everybody to forget that he wrote Michael Howard’s Election Manifesto just in two thousand and five. Completely and utterly different from everything that he says today, but I’m sure that’s not quite relevant to the question. [CLAPPING]

ALIBHAI-BROWN
Actually Obama has already said – before I forget. Obama has already said hasn’t he, last week, he wants to rethink his relationship with this country and make it a more equal one which I think is great. We’ve been supplicants for too long.

WILLETTS
I, I want to go back to what John said actually cos I do think that, I agree with his point about the need, the sort of, this openness in America. And I do think there is a con... When I look at the, the point when our Party’s fortunes started to revive it was when we had, after that two thousand and five defeat, a proper open debate at the time of that leadership election with people coming forward with their ideas and discussing what was going wrong with our party and what we needed to do to sort it out. And I think that was the foundation on which the subsequent revival of our party has rested. And I do think that if Labour had had a similar debate when Tony Blair stood down and had had a General Election and had had different candidates putting forward their ideas for leadership then I think that would have been a solid foundation for a new Labour Leader and they might not be in the difficulties they’re in today.

MAIR
Anthony Seldon.

SELDON
I’m going to say something nice about you a bit later David but, but I mean in the interests, in the interests ..

MAIR
Don’t have much time left on the programme Anthony.

SELDON
.. okay well I’ll ... In the interests of truth David it simply isn’t correct to say that the Tory Party started reviving when it started having a decent debate. The Tory Party started reviving when it went wrong for Labour cos that’s what happens. Period I’m afraid.

WILLETTS
No that’s – it – cos it doesn’t, things can go wrong for governments and things went wrong for Labour in the past. The whole point was that in the past when things went wrong for Tony Blair people, when they turned to the Conservative Party did not decide that we were a Party they wanted to support. This time round as they got fed up with Labour they’d seen there is a credible alternative government waiting ..

MAIR
All right.

WILLETTS
.. to serve our country.

MAIR
Let’s take our next question please.

MORRELL-GLENISTER
Diana Morrell-Glenister. What must Gordon Brown do to re-establish the confidence of his Party and Labour supporters?

MAIR
What marvellous continuity. John Denham?

DENHAM
Well the answer to the first part of the question is that Gordon has got the confidence of the Labour Party and that was actually quite .. (HECKLING) no it’s very, it’s very .. [CLAPPING] .. it’s very, it’s very interesting. If you look, if you looked at the media the weekend after the Crewe and Nantwich bi-election which was a pretty awful bi-election defeat for the Labour Party, journalists across the country had spent hours and hours and hours trying to find anybody who wasn’t a small number of usual suspects coming out to attack the Labour Party leadership. And it didn’t actually happen. And that is actually because we do believe, and it may take a lot of the two years that we’ve got between now and the next General Election, a leader who can take this country and our Party through to victory. And the reason for that is that actually those of us who know and work closely with Gordon know that he actually does know the things that need to be done. He’s confident about using government to tackle the problems we’ve got. He understands as most people do that most of the problems we’re facing at the moment are being faced around the world, whether it’s the result of the credit crunch, the fuel price rises, the food effects, we’ve heard today of very sharp increases in unemployment in the USA. This isn’t a narrow British thing. And also he’s got a determination to do what actually we have done over the last ten years. For all that we haven’t managed to do the things we might have done, over the last ten years, it is true for most people in this country, if you are prepared to work hard, you by and by saw things getting better for yourself and your family. And the things that we can’t provide for ourselves, most of us, like education and health and ... actually in those areas, by and by they have got better. It’s harder to do that, it is harder, it is hard, it is harder to do that in a world where there are many difficulties. But that vision and those values have driven Gordon and the rest of us over the last ten years, they are still the values we have and we’ll argue our case. Wherever we are in the opinion polls at the moment we’ll argue our case and I agree that will take us through and we will win. [CLAPPING]

MAIR
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown.

ALIBHAI-BROWN
There is a Gordon Brown to respect. And you don’t see that Gordon Brown very often. So why is he wasting his time at the moment over this forty two days which no one wants when he could be getting about doing his job the way he should be doing and we, you and I know he can do. This self emulation he’s going for, just for whatever reason – nobody understands. He’s wasting his life and his chances. I’m really upset about that.

MAIR
David Willetts. The question again – what must Gordon Brown do to re-establish the confidence of his Party and Labour supporters?

WILLETTS
Well the trouble is I think that it’s, it’s got so fundamental. It is, there’s this widespread feeling that just the country is not heading in the right direction. And I’m afraid even John doing his best to make the case for Gordon Brown made that sort of classic manoeuvre that so frustrates people where when the times are good it’s all because of the superb decisions the government is supposed to have been taking. And whenever there’s a problem it’s all because of some international event that’s outside the government’s control. So some willingness to take responsibility for things. And some willingness just to accept when he’s made a mistake, like he’s made a mistake on his ten pence tax ban which initially he denied ... then he wasn’t going to change it at all. And then he finally did make a concession. We’re going through just the same cycle now with vehicle excise duty when he’s denying that large numbers of families are going to be affected when they clearly are going to be. Just something that is more shows that he directly understands the experiences of mainstream Britain as people struggle to pay the bills and are worried about security of their jobs and are watching, worried about their family finances. I just think he’s, he’s, he seems deeply out of touch. And you get, you don’t get – this guy was supposed to offer us a vision. I don’t think you get any sense of a vision. And you don’t get any sense that he’s sort of engaging with the world around him. And it is, and every week at Prime Minister’s Questions, okay the Prime Minister’s Questions is partly sort of theatre. But every week it is where you are tested. And every week at Prime Minister’s Questions I’m afraid he is tested and it, he just can’t deliver. He can’t explain what he’s doing or why. And it’s, given his reputation as chancellor I think it’s a, quite extraordinary how badly he’s performing as prime minister.

MAIR
Anthony Seldon. [CLAPPING]

SELDON
The, the short answer to Diane’s question about what can you best do to get the confidence of the Labour Party back is to resign tomorrow. The .. but .. [CLAPPING] but, but, but that’s actually, that’s actually quite a cheap answer because I don’t believe in fact that many of the problems that Gordon Brown is suffering from are entirely his fault. I think if Tony Blair was still there he’d be facing many of the similar problems. It just is a fact that if you want to take over a political party in power don’t take it over in the dying days of a long period of time, take it over at the beginning. And I think that Gordon Brown has many extraordinary qualities. He had the, the potential to be one of Britain’s great, great prime ministers. But he took over at the wrong moment. He now has to really focus in one what he really wants to do. And focus in on important things. My regret is that he will spend, he will leave and he’ll spend thirty years sulking. The sulk – I wrote about him having it from two thousand and one on – will be nothing compared to the sulk of the next thirty years when he looks back at what he could have done and what he should have done is the moment he took over from Tony Blair said “I’m going to do this, this, this and this” and one of them would have been coming out of Iraq.

MAIR
Doctor Anthony Seldon. Thank you. [CLAPPING] And that’s it. My thanks to everyone on the panel this week. Next week we’re at St James’s School in Huddersfield. Among the panellists Ed Balls. If you’d like to call Any Answers the number is 08700 100 444 or email any.answers@bbc.co.uk. From all of us at Springfield School in Portsmouth thank you for listening.
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